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  • Writer's pictureThe Convergence

Tackling inequality through education and bureaucracy

Commentary | Rebecca Metteo, Managing Editor (Operations)

Photo: Today File Photos

Inequality has many culprits: policy, tradition, mindset and so forth that have shaped the homogenous definition of success and adequacy.

At a recent discussion on inequality, Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh raised a remarkable analogy of an olive and a pear. Koh referenced Singapore first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's idea of wanting to build a "Singapore which resembles an olive - very few very rich, very few poor people, and a very large middle income."

However, he has challenged that it has grown to a pear shape instead. This meant that despite rising affluence, many were also ushered to the bottom of the pyramid.

Inequality becomes a related problem for many reasons but especially so when academic success and hard-line bureaucracy are in question.

Amidst the growing economy and technological advancement, rising inequality increases the income-gap between people. Trapped in the vicious cycle of inequality, the middle class finds it inherently challenging to thrive in a fast-paced society.

The challenges that arise from such inequality can erode the effectiveness of education and social policies.

Thus, it is worth relooking at ideas that drive education and social policies; inequality becomes a related problem for many reasons but especially so when academic success and hard-line bureaucracy are in question.

Renewed understanding of education and success

Education is a viable way of improving the effects of rising equality. But rapid changes to society and the economy should indicate the need to look at new definitions towards inclusive education.

This requires the society first to embrace and then to exercise the notions that success lies beyond school grades and academic performance.

There needs to be a shift in the usual mentality that good grades necessarily translate into a successful life.

Besides a change of attitude, an inclusive education also encourages creativity and innovation. Hence, education can set to have broader meanings for different people with different skill sets.

As a poly graduate myself, grades are essential entry pass towards pursuing a degree in your dream university.

However, I also know of many friends who did not go on to pursue a degree but are excelling in professional fields. Previously the head of Public Service Division (PSD).

Mr Lim Siong Guan has pitched in his book "Can Singapore Fall" that the key to altering the society is to encourage innovation and creativity. The key values are "innovation, excellence and outwardness" and most importantly is that "…we have to recognise people for their effort and not only for their success".[2]

This is not in any way to discount those who are keen to pursue a degree and are granted into top schools. Instead, the message reminds us that there are different routes and definition towards success and that the society values such differences.

Trapped in Bureaucracy

Rising Inequality in society is perpetuated by the levels of stringent bureaucracy that only makes it hard for people who have less to progress.

That is not to say that bureaucracy is a hindrance or is unnecessary. I firmly believe that bureaucracy is crucial in ensuring that those who need resources are provided with the means to obtain it.

It is troubling that mechanisms have primarily focused on those who need it the most rather than those who need it in general.

In the widely read book by Dr Teo You Yenn, "This is what Inequality looks like" looks at developing the strengths of the needy and to target generally on those who need it rather than those who need it the most.

An example that Dr Teo raised in which she understood from a participant the hassle of submitting ten documents to prove that one is 'truly needy' . This example would strike many Singaporeans like you and me who have been through some forms of application whether for University, financial aid and so forth.

Bureaucracy aims for efficiency and to determine who needs resources or assistance, and this amounts to a heavy load of paperwork both on the bureaucrats and the applicants. Such rigidness in the system has inevitably perpetuated inequality because it seems that it is so difficult even to get help.

Aside from the fact that getting help requires courage, such mechanisms may deter willingness to tap on social assistance schemes because it seems "troublesome". Bureaucracy is not obsolete, but it is also time to keep up with social challenges ahead that stem from rising inequality.

For example, through leveraging on technology, Government can utilise a centralised system that stores and updates information of its citizens. It is also to ensure that applicants do not need to submit the same documents to various departments while providing sufficient autonomy for individual departments to search in a centralised system.

An example, according to AP News, would be Estonia's move towards becoming a "digital government", where it has established a platform for electronic authentication and digital signatures in both private and public sectors.

Besides, it has equipped privacy measures, and citizens can monitor their information. Such a system has reduced bureaucracy, and many of the services are automatised.


Should the society alter its values? How can the government help to shape changing values? Are there mechanisms that can be put in place to improve rising income inequality?

Education, in the eyes of many, is seen as a crucial factor to define one's social standing. Bureaucracy has either directly or indirectly impacted the lives of individuals through levels of policy procedures.

In the years to come, the topic on social policies and rising inequality will inherently shape Singapore politics and become central to the lives of Singaporeans - and their future.

Therefore, it is pertinent to first deal with the pillars of education and bureaucracy that affect the lives of almost every Singaporean.


About the Author: Rebecca is a year 2 undergraduate reading Political Science at NUS and is the Associate Editor (Opinion) of The Convergence. She is an avid reader of current affairs and (some) books (and occasionally memes on the Internet). Rebecca hopes to engage in meaningful conversations regarding social policies and international affairs with fellow readers, students, and everyone interested in world issues. Finally, she is also a muggle who have unexplainable love for dogs.



[1]Lim Siong Guan, Can Singapore Fall (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2018), 85.

[2]Teo You Yenn, This is What Inequality Looks Like (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2018), 194.


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